In Bad Words, first-time film director Jason Bateman can’t elevate his kooky movie about a 40-year-old spelling bee contestant to much more than unpleasant.
Bateman plays Guy Trilby, who finds a loophole that will let him compete among pre-teens in a national spelling bee, the Golden Quill. He’s on some sort of mission of revenge: why and against whom, you only find out late in the 89-minute film, at which point I found it was both moot and illogical. Trilby is accompanied by a reporter (Kathryn Hahn, a great comedic character actress who does her best here but only gets a few chances to shine) who tries to get answers out of him for a story. “Why, at age 40,” she asks, “have you decided to annoy educators, parents and children by forcing your way into a kid’s spelling bee?” He’s quick to make enemies: one of the “randomly” selected words he’s required to spell is “floccinaucinihilipilification.” The Golden Quill director is Allison Janney, a role that fits her like a glove since it feels like she’s played uptight, conservative, turtleneck-wearing women a dozen times already.
Bateman’s Trilby is unlikeable and makes no effort to be otherwise. The actor plays against type here, but it didn’t quite work for me. He begrudgingly befriends a prepubescent boy of Indian origin named Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand, who played Issa Nazir on that one episode of Homeland in which you see him) but calls him Shawarma and Slumdog. Having Chaitanya smile through the insults hurled at him is untoward. An attempt at a heart-tugging, gentle-giant type arc between Bateman and Chand’s characters comes off especially forced and unnatural given the personality traits we’ve come to deplore in Bateman’s character. The kid is cute, but the scenes in which he gets corrupted should have been funnier than they turned out.
There are issues with the screenplay by first-timer Andrew Dodge. The R-rated film is fast and loose with with the cusses which I love when they’re not merely punchlines like they are in Bad Words. Trilby’s motivations are unveiled eventually and if you hadn’t already figured out why he’s doing what he’s doing, you’ll likely be let down by the revelation.
The film is guilty of confusing rudeness and meanness with the kind of icy behaviour or witty criticism we might have enjoyed from Meryl Streep’s “dragon lady” in The Devil Wears Prada – hell, even Anne Robinson from game show The Weakest Link. They’re fun to watch and we laugh because we’re happy we’re not on the receiving end of the insults. Bateman’s Trilby makes you look on horrifyingly and wish he would just get over it/loosen up/take a breather. It’s hard to care about and side with a character who is secretive about his motives when the premise (an adult at a kids’ spelling bee) is ripe for silliness and laughs.
Bateman’s feature directorial debut Bad Words is a letdown, and that might be the worst word of all.
Bad Words opens in theatres in Montreal on Friday, March 28.
★½ (out of ★★★★)